Despite cost, Hathorn defends academic-recovery plan


By Denise Dick

denise_dick@vindy.com

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The city school district spent more than $3.4 million on the state-required academic- recovery plan last year, and the costs keep mounting.

With the exception of the $600,000 spent on consultants to provide leadership mentors, monitor school-district systems and oversight, the majority of the costs are expected to recur annually as long as the plan is in place.

Of the total spent last year, about $1.5 million is from the district’s general fund. The remainder came from grants and federal money including stimulus funds, district figures show.

Still, Superintendent Connie Hathorn believes the plan is worth the cost.

“We identified some areas that we need to address,” he said.

Lock P. Beachum Sr., school-board president, says he sees a lot of enthusiasm among teachers, principals and students when he visits district schools and believes the improvements brought on through the academic plan play a role in that.

“I have a more positive attitude right now about how things are going,” he said.

Among the issues brought to light through consultants is the need for improved training, Hathorn said. The 15-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in kindergarten and first grade is another plan element he believes is a benefit.

“Even though research says it doesn’t make a difference, in a teacher’s mind, they say it does make a difference,” Hathorn said.

Melissa Miller, who is in her second year as a kindergarten teacher at William Holmes McGuffey Elementary School, says the smaller class size allows for more individual and small group instruction of students.

“It really is priceless,” she said.

Kindergarten and first grade are important development years and help build a foundation for the rest of a child’s education, the teacher said.

On a day last week, half the class worked with Miller using dry-erase board and markers to write the words of sounds she spoke.

“What letter makes this sound: s-s-s?” she asked and continued to sound out the word sun.

Most of the children wrote the word correctly.

The other half of the class used a computer program, practicing their letters and colors. Miller said the program allows each student to work at their individual skill level.

Other teachers also have said the smaller class size is working. But Stan Heffner, Ohio superintendent of public instruction, told members of the city schools Academic Distress Commission last year that the ratio was an element of the plan they should evaluate to see if it’s worth the money.

The school board hired 28 new kindergarten and first-grade teachers in August 2010 to achieve smaller class sizes in those grades. The cost is roughly $2 million of the plan’s more than $3.4 million total.

Hathorn said that ratio may increase to 18 students-to-1 teacher in those lower grades, which is still lower than the 24 or 25-to-1 in the other elementary grades.

“It’s not so much about decreasing class size as about instruction,” he said.

That’s why training, another element of the plan, is crucial.

“I’ve seen some teachers — not in Youngstown — who can’t teach,” Hathorn said. “If they can’t teach, it doesn’t matter if it’s 15-to-1 or one-on-one.”

Leadership mentors provided by one of the consultants, Mosaica Turnaround Partners, for $405,000, were somewhat effective, Hathorn said.

“The principals had never really looked at data before,” Hathorn said. “This forced them to look at data, and if they had a problem, they had a mentor to call.”

Also helpful were the math and literacy coaches in the district, which cost about $408,000.

“We now have coaches in those two content areas to go into classroom and help teachers,” Hathorn said.

What’s undetermined is the cost of a revised plan under development by a newly constituted Academic Distress Commission. Heffner appointed three new members to the commission last November, replacing three original members appointed by the previous state superintendent. One of those new members has since resigned, and Heffner is expected to make another appointment.

Heffner on Friday could not reached.

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